History's Greatest Human Resources Error
Employee of the Month: Harold "Kim" Philby
From Russia With Love: In 1940, Kim Philby passed his security clearance with flying colors and was inducted into His Majesty's Secret Service—the legendary British foreign intelligence office known as MI6. During the next 20-some years, Philby slowly worked his way up the chain of command and was eventually promoted to head of Soviet Affairs. For a while, he was even being groomed to be MI6's next Director General. But, unbeknownst to MI6, Philby had another employer. Since 1934, he'd secretly been working as an agent for the KGB.
Neither Shaken, Nor Stirred: Strangely enough, MI6 officials had actually received several warnings about their star employee; they'd simply chosen to ignore them all. As early as 1939 (the very year Philby was recruited by British intelligence), a defecting KGB agent had reported a suspected spy whose background matched Philby's exactly. His testimony, however, was almost immediately discounted. Another defector came forward with similar information in 1945, only this time the ex-commie disappeared before he could give his full account. Regardless, no one really seemed to suspect that Philby was up to anything—that is, until 1950, when his background was reviewed in preparation for his possible appointment as Director General, and the earlier defector statements were reread. The promotion was quickly sidelined—and yet, Philby was kept on at MI6. Even a year later, when he became the prime suspect accused of helping two other British double agents escape to Russia, Philby received no more than a slap on the wrist. He eventually resigned under pressure, but was financially compensated and retained as an intelligence agent-for-hire. In 1963, after yet another Soviet defector fingered Philby, MI6 finally got on the ball and began a thorough investigation, only to find that their mole had defected to Moscow.
This summer, we'll be re-running parts of "The 20 Greatest Mistaikes in History," Maggie Koerth-Baker's cover story from March-April 2007. For other installments, click here.